Did Facebook Make You Vote?
On Election Day, Facebook played a huge social science experiment on everyone who logged in.
Oh, and you didn’t get to opt out.
Assuming you are over the age of 18 and were using a computer in the United States, you probably saw at the top of your Facebook page advising you that, surprise, it was Election Day. There was a link where you could find your polling place, a button that said either “I’m voting” or I’m a voter,” and pictures of the faces of friends who had already declared they had voted, which also appeared in your News Feed. If you saw something like that, you were in good company: 94 percent of 18-and-older U.S. Facebook users got that treatment, assigned randomly, of course.* Though it’s not yet known how many people that is, in a similar experiment performed in 2010, the number was *60 million*. Presumably it was even more on Tuesday, as Facebook has grown substantially in the past two years.
But here’s the catch: six percent of people didn’t get the intervention. Two percent saw nothing — no message, no button, no news stories. Another two percent saw the message but no stories of friends’ voting behavior populated their feeds, and a final two percent saw only the social content but no message at the top. By splitting up the population into these experimental and control groups, researchers will be able to see if the messages had any effect on voting behavior when they begin matching the Facebook users to the voter rolls (whom a person voted for is private information, but whether they voted is public). If those who got the experimental treatment voted in greater numbers, as is expected, Fowler and his team will be able to have a pretty good sense of just how many votes in the 2012 election came directly as a result of Facebook
Yes, Facebook used everyone as pawns in an experiment to test whether peer pressure would make us vote. The question is whether it works or not. If this is a successful way for social media to influence behavior, it could have all sorts of effects on how campaigns target voters. It also could have all sorts of effects on how people view social media.
Facebook is generally viewed as somewhere between a utility and accessory. Users see it as a fundamental way to keep in touch with the world or, at the very least, an easy way to discover whether your high school classmates got fat without the irritation of going to a reunion. But this transforms it into an agent of good. It’s clear we like Facebook when it lets us discover who took advantage of the free ice cream machine at college; the question is whether we still like it when it makes us eat our vegetables.
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